5 June 2003

Ghana: The effects of water privatisation on women

Accra — Water experts have predicted that a worldwide water shortage is set to worsen significantly over the next 25 years with billions of people affected by an unprecedented global crisis.

The experts also forecast that women and children, especially in Africa are the group that would be hit hardest. During a recent international workshop on the privatization of essential services participants sent distressed signals that women would be the worse affected if water were put in private hands.

They therefore called on the sponsors on the water privatization scheme to rethink their position and find alternatives to the water privatization agenda.

Zo Randrianamaro of the Third World Network Africa Secretariat who was the lead discussant on the 'Economic Implications of Water Privatisation-The Gender Angle noted that there is a great cost to every country that does not provide potable water to its people.

She explained that the absence of clean water reflects in poor health; drop in productivity as more workers absent themselves from work. She said because women form the bulk of the Ghanaian society they are usually worse affected in the event of removal of subsidy on water and other essential services.

According to Randrianamaro in case of water shortage and high cost of water, it is women who pay heavily because of their reproductive status. She said in the villages, women are compelled to walk several kilometers in search for water. "And these women usually carry their daughters along in search for water. The result is dropout in education of the girl child with the attendant health hazards", Randrianamaro explained to the participants.

Citing specific cases, Randrianamaro said a study of the socio-economic environment in Madina, a suburb of Accra has revealed that collecting water has played a key role in girls dropping out school in that community, as in other rural communities in Africa.

"In Madina, the effects of water privatization has caused people to resort to drinking water from wells, with its health hazards", adding that water borne diseases account for 70 percent of disease treated in hospitals across the country.

She said the health situation continues to deteriorate because of the full-cost recovery policy currently in operation. "Here again it is women who are burdened with taking care of the sick".

In the view of Randrianamaro the argument that competition in the water sector will bring efficiency does not hold water because by its nature water provision is monopolistic. According to her, experiences elsewhere have shown that the market does not determine the price of water; it is determined by the interest of transnational corporations.

She explained that in many instances that transnational corporation were unable to reach the profit levels, governments of the countries made for the difference by resorting to tariff adjustment, usually fixed to exchange rate.

"So when the local currency depreciates, there is an automatic adjustment to meet the profits of the private companies. Whenever access to social services are lacking, women step in to provide cover, thereby hurting their economic power."

Randrianamaro further explained that in the event of privatization of water and other services domestic savings would drop as people pay more for basic services. "There will be more resources going out of the country as companies repatriate profits, while investing very little", she stressed.

"The opportunity cost of investing in budgetary balance as against investing in services is illogical. What is the rational of subsidizing multinational companies as against investing in social services?", she asked.

She was of the view that if privatization of water goes ahead as planned the state would have abandoned its responsibilities in terms of social reconstruction. :Ghana will no longer be a developmental state, it will be a state serving corporate interests and Ghanaians will be reduced to nothing, unable to afford basic services."

In a paper : "Water Privatisation in Ghana-Women under siege", Rudolf Amenga-Etego, Coordinator of Advocacy and Campaign Programmes of ISODEC said even though privatization of the water system is still underway, it has already brought untold hardship for women and children.

Rudolf said under the IMF and World Bank policy, the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission (PURC) is expected to continue hiking water rates until a market rate is achieved. This policy, he called 'boil the frog' method of rate-setting explaining that just as a frog does not struggle if water temperature is gradually raised to the boiling point, it is assumed that consumers will not struggle if rates are increased gradually to market levels.

According to Rudolf the PURC is also expected to protect foreign investments and stabilize revenue levels by indexing water rates to the dollar. "The direct result of these two policy measures has been a drastic and traumatising increase in water rates since the privatization began."

He buttressed the point that in all these goings-on women and children are worse affected, since men care little about water bills and how and where water is obtained. He said in poor households in some parts of the country women are compelled to make important trade-offs in order to provide for water, sometimes reducing income earning abilities. Rudolf cites the case of Madam Atuko, who lives in East Mamobi is a clear example. "Asked why she continues to drink from a polluted well located close to an open sewer, she said the water from that well is free, so taking water from there allows her to save ¢2000 she would have spent on buying water."

"Households are often forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Children go to school in tattered uniforms to save money for water and food; others drop out altogether when basic households become unbearable", says Rudolf. He explained that in societies in where parents prefer to send boys to school, the difficulty of accessing water provides yet another excuse for keeping girls at home. "It is common to see girls carrying water and walking long distances at dawn. They end up going to school late, sleeping through lessons and failing their exams."

He pointed out that the impact of water shortage on urban housemaids is distressing. This is because a large number of urban women go to work and leave household care to their girls. The solution, according to him is to provide boreholes or a tap in every cluster of houses in rural and urban areas alike in order to restore freedom to the poor, especially women and the poor.

"It is time to make the gender dimension of water and sanitation challenges the focus of politics. We need to respond to these problems politically", concludes Rudolf.

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